Wednesday, April 16, 2008

This We Believe... Philosophical Under-Pinnings of our High School at MCPS

It is the mission of all Catholic high schools to cooperate with God's grace in the life of their students to create people of faith, virtue and wisdom. When our students graduate, we want them have an adult disposition, to be self-disciplined, generous and hard-working, and to have a mature commitment to their faith.

Practically speaking, what guidelines help a Catholic school bring these virtues to fruition? As I prepare to leave Montgomery Catholic in June, this question is very much on my mind. Since Dr. Thomas Doyle became principal in 1973, we have been blessed to have thoughtful Boards, faculty and leadership here who not only made policies and implemented procedures, but were reflective of the philosophical and psychological principles that under-lied these policies. This "meta-cognition", this "thinking about our own thinking" has been a great strength of our school for 35 years. I believe it's helpful to articulate these principles, both for my own benefit, that I may carry them with me, but also for Montgomery Catholic itself, that it may understand the tradition and the principles which have made it such an excellent school for so long.

1) We believe that if we assume the best in students, they'll usually act that way. If we assume the worst we'll get it.

Too often, schools impose complex sets of rules to stymy the 5% of the student body inclined toward mischief, almost guaranteeing that a portion of the 95% of the kids who never needed those rules to regulate their behavior will begin to chaff and act against them. Good high schools aim for a milieu in which adult behavior is expected; the first step toward that end is to treat kids like young adults and treat the exceptions as exceptions.

When setting rules, some times less is more. Ultimately, what defines the behavior of students in a school is the quality of the relationships between students and teachers, not rules. We have tried at Catholic to encourage things that build relationships between teachers and students (healthy extra-curricular life with teachers as moderators, a vibrant after school tutorial program, insistence that teachers handle their own discipline rather than referral of minor infractions to a centralizing entity). When relationships are formed, school becomes personalized, making reliance on authority and rules less important.

2) We believe that uniformity and discipline are not the same thing.

Students need a disciplined environment in which to learn. Schools must insist on this. This means, among other things, that the halls are quiet while teaching is going on, that classrooms are buzzing with productive learning, that school property is respected, that language is proper, that adults are in charge. It is completely possible that these things can be true even if students are not in uniform, even if some kids have longer hair, even if some kids wear socks and others don't, even if shirt-tails are untucked.

I do not suggest Montgomery Catholic ought to allow our students to look slovenly, nor am I against uniforms. In my ninth year as principal, I instituted uniforms for the first time in our school's then 123 year history. I did so, however, because some fashions for women had become immodest, and when two mothers showed up at a parent meeting dressed in the same outfit we had sent two girls home for earlier that day, I knew we were losing the culture war and that uniforms were our only defense. Originally, students were given a series of options to wear within our uniform code, and the code was mute on issues such as types of shoes, socks, belts, etc., insisting, instead, on "neatness" and a "professional appearance".

When I became president, my successor began adding layers of restrictions and definitions to our code, all with the aim of making kids look more alike. Certain color shoes were no longer permissible, hair length could only be 3 inches (with inspections by ruler in his office) and a number of uniform options were eliminated. Some parents I know hailed these changes as "crack-downs on discipline". This didn't have anything to do with discipline, but with uniformity.

St. Augustine once said "In essential things, unity, in non-essential things, liberty, in all things, charity". This is a wonderful philosophical summary for how we have tried to operate. We should insist on the most fundamental things and allow some room on the others.

3) We believe we must give teens the chance to make mistakes and to assume responsibility for their mistakes.

As parents, when our children are young, we tend to intervene prior to our kids making mistakes. It's the wrong approach with teens, unless (generally) the mistake they're about to make is detrimental to their health or safety. So, for example, a young teen who insists he can "handle" homework on his own, without the need for his parents to insist on a time or place every night, should be given the chance to try it. If he succeeds, wonderful--we want our kids to become independent. But if he fails, which is likely, we can now curtail activities and insist on structure. Teens are taught to reap what they sow.

There are a lot of applications of this principle to running a high school. Student government leaders should make most of the decisions concerning school social functions, with the adults in a secondary role, assisting. If a dance goes well, the student leaders should feel pride in their accomplishment and receive the accolades. If it goes poorly, they should shoulder the blame and the teacher should talk with them about how to do things better next time. A lot is learned in failure. Too often, borne out of concerns for a school's image, adults make all significant decisions to prevent things from going badly, but in so doing, rob kids of the opportunity to learn.

It's messier this way, to be sure, and sometimes, the school will take hits for this messiness. A parent observer, coming to a student-planned activity, may be critical of the school for its "lack of planning" or for "poor organization". High schools don't exist to please this parent but to teach virtue. Parents who have raised teenagers know that giving some decision making to our teens and allowing them to flop is part of the art of parenting.

4) We believe the aim of our discipline is student growth, not order.

I have written elsewhere (Article #1, Article #2, Article #3) in some detail about the philosophical foundations and practical applications of discipline within a Catholic high school. If discipline is to be a ministry of the Church, it must be aimed at doing whatever is most effective to help each child become the kind of person that God wants him or her to be, rather than as the imposition of a template onto each student. In other words, punishments must fit the student, not the "crime". When I was a young principal, not fully understanding this point, I sent two kids home for a 3 day out of school suspension for something wrong. The first young man had wonderful parents who made the 3 day suspension a labor camp, waking him up at the crack of dawn with a long list of hard chores that had to be completed before their return home from work. The second set of parents did nothing, which meant their child woke up at 1 p.m. and watched cartoons for three days. In the first case, the young man came back with resolve to do better, and in the second, the child continued to have problems and eventually dropped out of school. My decision to discipline each child the same was prompted by my concern for order and a desire to be perceived as "fair" by others, more so than my concern to help each kid grow. It cannot be this way. We must be creative, flexible and innovative to help kids assume responsibility for themselves, even at the risk of being perceived as "unfair".

5) We believe that fostering a teenager's faith development is founded on 3 pillars: adult modeling, serious study and invitation.

St. Francis of Assisi once said "Preach the gospel, and if you must, use words". The single greatest predictor of whether or not our children will practice their faith as adults is the authenticity of the faith of their parents, and secondarily, the faith of the other significant adults in their lives. Teenagers spot phonies instantly. If we expose our children to teachers who are lively in their faith, who are committed to service, who love life and have a good sense of humor, it is likely that teens will aspire to be like them.

Good theology programs aim at teaching content. Too often, religion teachers view themselves as retreat masters, aiming for teens' hearts and not their heads, or as our retired English teacher (Mr. Petrof) once put it, aiming for "sensation more than sense". This locates the responsibility for students' spiritual growth too narrowly in the theology classroom, rather than within the broader Christian community of the school. Trying to elicit an emotional response in the classrooms undercuts the legitimacy of the content in the student's eyes, who quickly regard English and Math as "more important" or "more serious" subjects . Our intellectual tradition (and our sacramental life) distinguishes us as Catholics from other faiths, but too few adult Catholics have been exposed to this tradition in a serious enough way to appreciate it. The best thing theology teachers can do is to be excellent teachers alongside the Math, Science and English faculty, teaching students solid doctrine and applying this doctrine in myriad ways, giving demanding tests, requiring challenging papers and having elevated discussions in the classrooms. The deep knowledge which results will prove over time to be fertile soil from which faith develops long and lasting roots, whereas aiming for experience becomes like seed cast on shallow soil, in which faith grows quickly but wilts in the wind and the sun.

Finally, we believe the invitation model lends itself more effectively to students growth in faith than a compliance model. It's easy for schools to require religious compliance in its teens, but much harder to gain internal assent. Schools can require Mass every week for its students or insist upon a series of religious behaviors, but in the end, do these things "stick"? When our students leave us, will they practice their faith as young adults?

Roughly 400 of the students in my dorm at Notre Dame in the early 1980's were from Catholic high schools. Of these, I would estimate less than 200 regularly attended Sunday Mass. Two of my roommates didn't go, and their rationale was something along the lines of "For the first time in my life, I don't have to". Clearly their high schools proved unsuccessful in their most important endeavor: inspiring in their students an adult commitment to their faith. We must be careful, I believe, in what we mandate of our teens. While it's important for us to gather together on regular intervals to practice our faith corporately, it is also important to allow teens some choice, less the Church be something else they regard as part of their childhood that must be shrugged off as "mature" adults. Having Masses once or twice a month in which teens are invited but not compelled to attend respects their emerging status as adults. When kids choose to come to Mass of their own accord, it is a significant religious moment in which THEY (not their parents, not their school) make their faith their own. We need to look for more opportunities that encourage children to choose their faith and make sure the opportunities we provide them are attractive enough to do so.

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